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“Becca? Becca! Baby, where are you?”
It was hard to scream a whisper, but Ally was doing her best. She didn’t want folks in the house to hear her calling for her daughter.
So she crept along in an uncomfortable walking crouch—the better to see small animals on the ground—behind the building which contained the gym and swimming pool, softly calling for Becca and hoping the girl hadn’t run off into the woods.
Thirty or forty yards to her right, over by the wood shop, she heard Michael calling for Becca in a whisper-yell much like her own.
"Hey! Stinky Butt! Where are you?"
She couldn’t see him, but her hearing was as acute as the werewolf’s.
"Michael! That's not gonna make her want to come in!”
"Michael! That's not gonna make her want to come in!”
At five and a half, Becca was a Big Girl, and Big Girls didn't like being called by their baby nicknames.
“Shit,” Michael muttered. “Fine. Rebecca Jane MacDougall, where the hell are you? And why the hell does she have to come in, anyway? I don't blame her for running off—those kids are a pain in the ass!"
Ally could just imagine the look of disgust on the big wolf's face, and she smiled. He was right—her cousin Bethany's children were obnoxious. They were also seven, nine, ten, and thirteen.
Becca would be obnoxious when she hit that age range in a couple of years, but Ally didn’t plan to tell Michael or Cade. They wouldn’t believe it until it actually happened.
“Ally, go back inside and deal with your family. I’ll find Becca.”
Her relatives had to be wondering what the hell was going on. Becca had been gone almost an hour. Her aunt and both her cousins had already come out several times, offering to help her look, and they’d probably pop out again any minute. The thought of them catching Becca in mid-shift made Ally’s heart stop.
“I can’t go in, Michael. I’m getting scared. What if she’s hurt? It’s so cold out here.”
It had been snowing for the past couple of hours. and it would get a lot colder when night fell.
Oh God. What if we don’t find her before it gets dark?
“Stop it, Ally. She’s fine. She never goes very far into the woods and she hasn’t been out that long. Her fur is plenty warm enough.”
When Ally had first thought about inviting her relatives to the ranch to celebrate the holiday with her new family and pack, she hadn't foreseen spending Christmas Eve like this. She didn't blame herself for that, though.
What she blamed herself for was not realizing that having eight strangers, half of them kids, in the house for a week might be stressful for Rebecca. The child had spent her first four years fairly isolated from other kids. After a year of preschool, her social skills were much improved. She was happy and outgoing by nature. But four very loud older kids in her home was freaking her out, and she dealt with it by shimmying out of her clothes, shifting into a small black cat, and running off somewhere. And when a small cat had ten thousand acres to roam, "somewhere" was a lot of ground to cover.
“Oh fuck it,” Michael continued. “I say we go back inside and let Cade handle it when he gets home. She’ll come to him.”
The non-panicking part of her brain realized Michael was right. When she was outside in cat form Becca always stuck close to the compound—the house, guest cabins, and woodshop—or the horse barns. Cade had told all his wolves that his daughter was a shapeshifter. It was a big risk—females weren’t supposed to be able to shift—but it would have been far too dangerous not to tell them, since most werewolves in furry mode found cats pretty tasty.
Cade had also promised to kill any wolf who revealed Becca’s nature to anyone outside the pack. Between the threat of excruciating death and their natural protectiveness toward the little girl, Becca’s secret was safe. And the presence of so many werewolves kept bears and coyotes and big cats away from the ranch.
But what about owls? And hawks? She’d never even thought about that before! Airborne predators wouldn’t be scared away by werewolves.
When Cade got back from town she was going to tell him they couldn’t let Becca wander the ranch by herself. She’d already been gone longer than she’d ever done before. With every passing minute, Ally’s imagination came up with bloodier, more terrifying scenarios of what might have---
Still in the increasingly uncomfortable crouching position, Ally was mid-step when something small darted between her legs. She lost her balance, tipping backwards to land on her butt, narrowly missing the small black cat, which yowled in protest.
Ally grabbed her before she could run off.
“Thank you Jesus. Becca, shift. Right now.”
The girl had already started doing it. Truth be told, it kind of grossed Ally out to be touching, or even very close to, Becca or a wolf when they shifted. She’d never show it, though.
“You got her?” Michael asked.
The back door of the main house slammed. Then her cousin TJ called out, “Ally? Where are you? You find Becca yet?”
“Shit. Becca, hurry up!”
Which was an utterly stupid thing to say, since no shapeshifter could control the amount of time it took for the transformation to be complete.
Ally heard TJ’s footsteps heading in their direction. They had a only a few minutes before her cousin would reach the gym, walk around it, and see them sitting in the snow.
Fortunately, Becca shifted much faster than a werewolf did. Maybe it was a matter of size. They couldn’t exactly consult anyone about it, since according to Declan McSorley, there were maybe five female shifters in the whole world. (And all of them were related to Cade and Becca.)
Becca was back to human form and shivering in Ally’s arms when TJ appeared from around the corner, Michael right behind her.
“There y’all are,” said TJ. “And hey look—it’s a naked Becca! You’re gonna freeze your cute little tush off out here, girl.”
Rebecca managed a grin but didn’t say anything. Michael held out a hand so Ally could stand up without letting go of Becca.
“Okay, Stinky Butt, where’s the clothes?”
Rebecca shrugged and buried her face in Ally’s neck.
“She’s embarrassed,” Ally mouthed to them.
TJ ran a hand through Becca’s lustrous curls and patted her back. “I don’t blame you for wanting out of the house. It’s loud in there and those kids are getting the hell on my nerves.”
“Mine too,” groused Michael.
“Oh shut up, Wargman,” said TJ, whose boss was Michael’s younger brother. “Everyone gets the hell on your nerves. Ally, you need to get in there before my mom does something stupid.”
“She keeps going into the kitchen to see if she can help Sindri with dinner. I’ve told her a million times brownies don’t need help, but--”
“Christ,” said Michael. “I bet he’s gone underground.”
“No—I just saw him a couple minutes ago—but he looks exasperated. I mean, I think he does. I’m not really familiar with brownies’ facial expressions.”
“Okay, I’m going in. Michael, take Becca. Baby, where are your clothes? I really don’t want you going back in there naked.”
“I left ‘em over by the woodshop.”
“What?” Michael said. “How come I didn’t see them?”
“Never mind,” said Ally, depositing Becca in her godfather’s arms. “Just take her over there so she can get dressed and go inside. Becca, stop pouting. TJ, come with me so we can drag your mom out of Sindri’s kitchen.”
“Sindri, I promise you my aunt will not step foot in here again.”
“I cannot have people in my kitchen when I prepare food for so many.” The little brownie’s expression was actually the same as always, but Ally could tell he was frustrated and disturbed.
“I understand that.”
“I do not require help. I require calm, and silence, and--”
“Hi Sindri!” Becca chirped as she streaked (fully clothed) into the room. “I need a drink of water, please.”
“Of course, little one. Are you hungry? I can make you a snack. Sit down.”
“Becca, you had a big lunch two hours ago, and we’re going to have a big dinner in just a little while. You can wait.”
“But the child is hungry!” Sindri protested.
“No, she’s bored. And you need calm and silence.”
Now he looked exasperated.
Now he looked exasperated.
“Come on,” she said to Becca. “Let’s go see what the kids are doing.”
“They’re not doing nothing--”
“Anything. The teenager’s on her iPad--”
“Her name is Annie.”
“Yeah, her, and the boys are watching TV and yelling at each other. They’re not fun.”
“I’m sure we can think of something for y’all to do.”
“Hey!” said her cousin’s husband, Brent, as they walked into the den. “Michael was just saying we should take the kids outside and let them play with the BB and paintball guns.”
“Oh! Yeah, yeah!” Becca was bouncing now.
“I figure we let the little monsters burn off a bunch of energy before they sit down to eat.”
“It’s okay, Ally,” said Brent. “They are little monsters. Cept for Annie. She’s just a sulky teenager, but at least she’s quiet.”
Michael and Brent got all four kids out of the house, leaving Ally with a moment to just stand still and bask in the warmth and comfort of the house.
Her house. Her home. Her family.
The whole place smelled of Sindri’s amazing cooking. She didn’t even know what they would be eating, but she knew it would be delicious.
There was a crackling fire going here in the den. Cade thought Ally’s love of fireplaces was kind of hilarious—as soon as the weather hit sixty degrees she insisted on a fire in the den and in their bedroom. She’d explained to him that, as a child growing up in trailer parks in hot and humid Louisiana, and later as an adult living in apartments in equally hot and humid Texas, fireplaces seemed exotic and luxurious. Fireplaces were where happy families cuddled together in the winter time, and celebrated the kind of Christmases she and Seth had never known as kids.
And there was something about a fireplace in the bedroom that made her very horny.
After hearing all that, Cade was happy to make a fire whenever she wanted.
The Christmas tree came from the woods here on the ranch, and very nearly touched the cathedral ceiling. The bottom branches of the tree were impressive in diameter, yet the gifts beneath it extended far beyond the branches. They had to keep reminding Becca that not every present was for her. She was paying much closer attention to her share of the haul than she had last year.
She probably basked for a good minute, minute and a half, before she realized that all was still not well with Aunt Jocelyn.
“But I don’t understand how he can make dinner for sixty people without any help at all!”
“Mom, I told you, it’s a brownie thing. He doesn’t need help with the cooking or with the cleaning.”
“But where is everyone going to eat?”
Not having anything to do in preparation for a big meal was wholly alien to Jocelyn.
“We’re going to eat here in the house, Aunt Jocelyn,” said Ally. “I promise it’s under control. The guys are setting up tables here and in the living room. We’ll let the kids help set the tables when it’s time.”
A wolf tapped her on the shoulder.
“Hey, Justin. What’s up?”
“Cade just called. He said he and Seth were gonna be another couple of hours in town.”
“What the f…what are they doing? Cade said he needed to go over some stuff with Seth. How is that taking all day?”
Her husband owned one of only three car repair shops in Fremont. Ally’s cousin Seth ran the shop. This year he’d decided to stay open Christmas Eve.
The hapless young werewolf shrugged. "I don't know?"
“That is not okay. I know they’re just sitting around drinking beer because they don’t want to deal with all this.”
Shit. She glanced at TJ, who was smirking. But at least Aunt Jocelyn hadn’t appeared to hear.
Ally pulled out her phone and began dialing. Behind her TJ was suggesting that maybe Jocelyn would like to get a short nap before dinner, as TJ's sister Bethany was doing.
“But I'd feel terrible leaving Ally to handle such a big meal all by herself.”
“I can help her, Mom.”
“Tyler Jean, you know you're no good at this type of thing!”
Ally turned around at that. TJ just gave a very TJ-like grimace and said, "My mother, ladies and gentleman."
“I'm not exactly a domestic goddess myself, you know,” Ally grinned. “Jocelyn, seriously, I don't have to do anything. I get to just sit back and relax.”
"Then why aren't you?" asked TJ.
“Well, because....you know. There are all these people, and Becca ran off, and...”
“But she came back. Now the kids are having fun and—”
"Look out! Incoming injured—need some ice, stat!"
It was Brent, leading his youngest son (either Carter or Reid, Ally couldn't keep them straight) by the hand. The boy was crying loudly, one hand clapped firmly to his eye.
“Oh my Lord!” Aunt Jocelyn wailed.
“I don't see any blood spurting, Mama. I bet it's not fatal,” said TJ.
Neither Cade nor Seth were answering their damn phones, so Ally hung up.
“Reid hit Carter in the eye with the butt of his BB gun,” said Brent.
“He did in on purpose!” Carter sniffed.
“Oh, honey, I'm sure he didn't mean to,” said Jocelyn.
“Hell yeah he meant to” Brent grunted. “Little bastard's been tormenting Carter and Joseph all day and I'm done with him. Jocelyn, would you get him some ice?”
“I want Mommy!”
“Carter? Honey, what's wrong?”
They all looked up to see Bethany leaning over the upstairs railing.
“Reid’s being a dick again, baby,” Brent said.“Ally?”
This time it was a young wolf named Felipe.
“What is it?” she yelled, and then immediately felt guilty. Felipe was a sweetheart and one of her favorites.
“Michael said we need to set up tables in here now.”
“Can it wait for a bit?”
“Michael said it can’t wait because then he’ll never get all the females out of the way and Sindri will be ready to serve dinner and--”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it.”
“Sorry. Just telling you what Michael told us.”
Among the wolves of the Rocky Mountain Pack, “Michael said” was just as compelling as “Cade said.” Maybe even slightly more, actually, because Cade was quite a bit more laid back than his
lieutenant and didn’t think every wolf under forty was stupid and/or lazy.
“Come on, let's get out of the way,” said Ally. She was not going back into the kitchen if she could at all help it. "Okay. Brent and Bethany, y'all take Carter to the guest cabin next door—the one to your right when you're facing the driveway. There's a fridge in there, it has ice. He can chill out there til he's ready to join the kids again.”
“Honey, why don't you take him? Carter, go with Mama. I'm gonna have a talk with your brother. Ally, can I stick Reid in another cabin? I want to kick his ass but I'm just gonna park him somewhere by himself for a couple hours.”
“Sure. The cabin on the other side of the one Carter's going to. It's empty and there's nothing in it to keep him entertained.”
“I should go with Bethany and make sure Carter’s okay,” said Jocelyn.
“NO. You should go upstairs and lay down. Like, right now.”
“TJ's right, Aunt Jocelyn. Go rest so you can stay up later tonight.”
“Well, if you're sure you don't need anything—”
“She's positive, Mama.”
They both breathed a sigh of relief as Jocelyn climbed the stairs.
“All right. I’m gonna go make sure we have enough beer and wine iced down, and I need to get the guys to move their bikes and cars back behind the woodshop so the people coming in from town can park in the circle. And—oh shit. I forgot to tell Michael—what are you doing? Leggo!”
TJ had grabbed Ally’s wrist and was pulling her across the room. They stopped to let werewolves bearing fourtops get by, then TJ dragged her behind the bar.
“Nick said your husband is a wine snob. Let’s see—hello! You drink red, right?”
“Yeah. TJ, I don’t have time to—”
“Okay, is there a wine fridge—yes there is! Let’s see.”
She picked out a bottle of white—if Ally remembered correctly, her cousin was partial to dry whites.
TJ thrust the bottle of red at Ally. “Here. You carry this one and I’ll get the glasses.”
Glasses in hand, TJ turned back to Ally. “Well? Come on!”
“I thought we'd go out to that building in the back—the one with the pool.”
Ally was about to protest when she realized she really, really didn’t want to.
“No. Let’s go in Cade’s office. I’ll lock the door but I can still hear if something blows up.”
“Okay. This is better,” Ally admitted. “Wanna pour me a little more?”
“But of course. Think I’ll have some more too.”
Ally was in Cade’s battered old leather desk chair while TJ was stretched out on the couch.
“I really need to get out there, though. I feel like I’m neglecting my duties.”
“Ally, you keep saying how you don’t have to cook or keep house.”
“I know. I don’t. I look after Becca and I work with the horses.”
“So Becca’s occupied and the horses don’t need you right now. Just relax and hang out with me. I haven’t seen you since you left Houston!”
“I know. And I’ve missed you.”
“Same here. Emails and phone calls aren’t the same.”
“They’re really not.”
A lot of the family had been upset to learn Cade and Ally had wed without a wedding. They did it one Sunday before their parish priest, with just Becca and Michael and the few wolves who managed to get out of bed in time for eleven o’clock Mass as witnesses. Ally knew a lot of people wouldn’t understand, but she didn’t want to take the time to plan a big wedding. Big formal social events were not her thing at all, plus she wanted to adopt Becca as soon as she could. So they got married on a Sunday, filed the adoption papers the following Wednesday, and one month later the state recognized her as Becca’s mother.
“You hit the fucking jackpot, didn’t you? Hot Pack Alpha, adorable little girl, and you don’t have to cook or clean.”
“Damn straight,” Ally grinned.
“You’re happy here. You’re comfortable here. This is so where you belong.”
“It’s pretty amazing. I never, ever thought I’d be this happy.” She couldn’t begin to explain to TJ how it felt to finally live among people with whom she didn’t have to hide anything about her nature, as she’d had to hide it from TJ and all her family since she was eighteen.
“Dylan’s looking good. At least I think so. I only saw him for like ten minutes.”
“I know. He’s pretty much living at Heather’s place these days.”
“How’s Dec? You hear from him?”
“Oh, yeah. He emails us at least once a week. He’s doing fine. Just, you know, travelling and hanging out.”
Actually, he was attempting to contact his far flung, long lost Vargalf and much rarer dyrkona relatives. TJ knew a lot about werewolves, having had her heart broken by one years ago and having worked for the past six years as personal assistant to the Houston Pack Alpha. Still, Ally was pretty sure TJ had never heard of the Vargalf—fae werewolves. Fortunately, keeping secrets came naturally to Ally. Speaking of which…
“So…did your mom or Bethany say anything about Becca running off this afternoon?”
TJ shrugged. “No. Bethany felt kind of bad because she figured Becca was sick of the boys. I mean, Bethany never says so out loud but I’m pretty sure she knows Reid’s a pain in the ass. Plus Becca’s an only child and you said she’s not used to other kids staying in the house, so this must be overwhelming for her.”
A rush of gratitude flooded through her. “Yes, exactly. I should’ve expected it. Um…and about the naked thing?”
TJ threw her head back and laughed. “Oh my God, that was so cute! It’s fucking twenty-something degrees out there and Miss Thing is bare assed naked!”
“I just didn’t want Jocelyn or Bethany to see that because…I mean, you know…”
“My mom’s June Cleaver and my sister’s Junior League Barbie and you’re afraid they’ll judge your parenting skills?”
“Well, kind of! I mean, I know it sounds or vain or something, but I don’t want people thinking my kid’s weird, you know? When I take Becca to Texas next summer I don’t want them to be all that’s the naked girl or that’s the kid who freaks out around other kids.”
“Baby, believe me, there are plenty of weird kids in our family. Ricky’s boy Ryan—he’s fourteen now—they found some seriously disturbing porn on his computer. You remember Mary Anne’s kids?”
“Um…yeah, vaguely. Haven’t seen ‘em since they were little bitty.”
Ricky and Mary Anne were second or third cousins to TJ and Ally.
“Well, her girl’s sixteen or seventeen now. She dropped out of high school and moved in with her boyfriend, who’s in a band. In fucking Vidor. Shit—even Bethany’s had to loosen that stick up her ass. Joseph’s seven years old and still eats paste, and Reid’s an asshole.”
“What’s the deal with Annie?”
“I mean, no one’s got a perfect kid. Anyone who acts like they do, something’s wrong with them. And at the end of the day, don’t you have to just go, this is my kid, fuck you if you think you could do better?”
And for the first time since her relatives arrived three days ago, Ally relaxed. The knot in her shoulder that she hadn’t even realized was there, wasn’t there anymore. “Oh, TJ. I missed you bad, girl.”
“Same here.” TJ wiggled the bottle of cab at her. “More?”
“One more. Then we have to go get dressed. I need a shower.”
“Me too. This isn’t gonna be dressy, is it? Aren’t y’all pretty much casual all the time?”
“Yep. Jeans and a sweater will be fine. I will be wearing…a Christmas sweater.”
TJ froze. It was one of only a handful of times Ally had ever seen her extremely fashion conscious cousin speechless.
It was funny.
“Yep. A Christmas sweater. A sweater, with Christmas on it. Lots of Christmas. Like, Christmas threw up.”
Ally took another gulp of her cab and savored TJ’s undoubtedly momentary flusteredness.
TJ knocked back the rest of the wine in her glass and then poured another one.
“Okay. So this sweater…is it ugly?”
“You ever seen a Christmas sweater that isn’t? I mean, it’s not the worst one I’ve ever seen but yeah, this isn’t something you should even look at til you’re at least seventy-five. But Becca picked it out herself.”"Oh shit. How?"
“Cade took her shopping last week—this is the first year he’s let her pick out her own gifts for people. He promised he’d get whatever she picked out for everyone. And for some reason she decided I just had to have a sweater with reindeers and snowmen. And bells. It sparkles. My girl loves sparkly shit.”
“Did Cade realize this sweater was ugly?”
“Of course he did. My husband has a perverted sense of humor.”
“And you’re gonna wear this monstrosity?”
“Yep. At home. On Christmas Eve. Or Christmas day. Not both. And Becca will be nine or ten before she realizes I never wear it outside the house.”
“I don’t think I could do that. Not even for my own kid.”
“You could. You just—”
They both jumped when the door flew open.
“There you are!” said Cade MacDougall. “Starting on the Christmas cheer a little early, aren’t you?”
“Werewolf. You made me spill my wine. And I don’t have any left.”
“Shit. Neither do I. TJ, we polished off a bottle each.”
“Eh. We can still walk.”
“So. I’ve been helping out at the shop while you two were sitting around guzzl--”
“Oh, shut the hell up,” said Ally. “You and Seth were sitting around guzzling beer.”
Cade flashed his customary “fuck ‘em, I’m in charge here” grin. “Yep. But now we need to get it together because Sindri says dinner’s served at six.”
Several hours later, dinner consumed and children tucked into bed after one last bout of fun in the snow, the two couples and TJ sprawled in the den. Jocelyn had turned in, and the werewolves had scattered. Michael was overseeing a poker game in the woodshop.
“That was incredible,” yawned Brent. “I wish we had a brownie.”
“So do I,” sighed Bethany.
“I don’t think they can all cook like that,” said Ally.
“That’s one butt ugly sweater,” said TJ.
Cade didn’t open his eyes or lift his head from the back of the couch, but there was a smile in his voice. “She wears it with style, though, don’t she?” His hand flopped up to ruffle Ally’s hair.
Brent yawned. “I’m sinking, folks. My kids are gonna be up before the sun.”
“Oh, ours is too,” Cade murmured.
“Come on, honey. Let’s go.” Bethany pulled Brent off the couch. “Night, everyone.”
“See what happens when you have kids?” said TJ. “You’re tired all the damn time. I’m going to steal another bottle of your fine Merlot and go play some poker.”
“I’ll be sending the kids to wake your ass up in the morning,” warned Ally.
“They can try.” TJ tucked a bottle under her arm and left.
“Hey.” Cade gave her a little pinch. “Wanna go play some cards?”
“Okay. Want me to go make a fire in our room?”
“Nope. I wanna cuddle here and watch the tree for a while til I fall sleep and then you can carry me to bed.”
“My pleasure.” He was silent for a couple of beats. “The sweater’s not that bad, is it?”
“It’s hideous. I love it.”